New Mac Studio Workplace - M1 Ultra review from a Digital Artist

As some of you know, I'm a digital artist, but also into workplace ergonomy, which means I'm always trying to optimize my workspace to be more productive and healthy.

When my maxed out late 2015 - 4,0 GHz iMac died on me last year, it was possible to recover the dead internal drive from a time machine backup and use it with an external SSD. But, it wasn't quite the same and not up to speed as before. 

The clean desktop not even an iMac allows for

Especially since the late 2015 iMacs did not have the 3.2 gen USB-C yet at that time, only Thunderbolt 2.

That means no dedicated port that passes through the speeds of an external NVME-SSD to get the old thing to be as speedy as the internal thing.  And no; I didn't want to get my hands dirty, replacing an SSD on a 7 years old iMac.

So the interim solution was to use an inexpensive M1 Mac Mini that I already had for some Photoshop painting and doing all the rest of the work on the recovered iMac, such as printing jobs, emails and small renderings.

While this solution worked to some degree, I found my limits in Photoshop very fast (with just 8 gigs of RAM) and dropping files from one computer and organizing files around different devices wasn't as easy.

That's when I realized at the March 8 event this year, the Mac Studio is exactly what I needed. An expensive excuse to get a 32" display, I know ;)

And actually I'm not the apple-keynote person, but since my iMac was crumbling down, I hoped for a replacement that was powerful enough to do all the work I might dream of.

On March 9 I ordered the Studio as M1-Ultra with 20 CPU-cores, 48 GPU Cores and 2 TB internal SSD.

One small life-changing package

On the third week of April, it finally arrived.

The main reason I ordered so early on, was because I expected delivery delays because of either lockdowns or a huge demand - and both was true and even I had to wait for around 6 weeks - but it was really worth it, the M1 Ultra is a beast!

Now you could argue that the M1 Max would have been sufficient for a 2D-Artist like me. And usually I would agree. However, the reason for my decision was 50% to be future-proof and the other 50% comes from the experience, that workload and usage grows with the possibilities of the machine you are working with.

Here is a screenshot of my secondary screen that is just for references and stuff, add Photoshop and one mid-res PSD-file into the mix and the Mac Mini with 8 GB of RAM was at its limit.

Of course; I can not make use of some of the main features that are targeted at video editing such as the built-in encoders, but the 20 CPU-cores, the 48 GPU-cores and the 64 GB of Ram do plenty in 3D-editing as well. And you never know, maybe I do video-editing at some point too.

One of the main advantages I experience right now is, that I can multitask so much more by having a lot of RAM-hungry programs open, such as Chrome with 20 tabs, Photoshop with around 3-4 heavy PSD's, Zbrush, Keyshot, Blender, PureRef, Notes, Gigapixel and heck, even with all these apps open, starting a fourfold - scaling operation in Gigapixel only took 1/10th of the time it took on my maxed-out iMac!

The RAM-pressure also never got over 40%, regardless of what I did, but so far I did not work with full force ;)

I can only imagine when the heavy workload comes, which means 4-5 PSD's open with around 7k x 10k resolution at 300 dpi and around 50 - 80 layers each, zbrush open to work on 3D-models while Keyshot is rendering in the background, it might go up a bit.

Under Desk Mount

Actually I wanted to put the Mac Studio on my desk at the outer right corner.
However, that is an entry point for our cats to jump on the desk.

Imagining the hair and dust alone made me think twice, the noise-issue was just another nail on the coffin of using that thing ON my desktop surface. Also our cats often use the desk to chill and that made me move all unused equipment away from my desktop;)

Below is an image of my solution and I really like it. It is sturdy, cat-proof and it gets a lot air from below but no dust and as a special bonus I don't hear it AT ALL because the table is a sound absorber as well.

Another thing that was important for me is the 6-7 external drives that have to be connected. Under the desk, I can just utilize an old HDD-Tray from an old PC for that to hide them (and make them cat-proof:)

The under desk mount set me back around 13 €, not too much considering what it has to carry. 
Below you see the 4 materials any DIY-market usually has in store.

It even looks better than those you can buy due to the round aluminium bars, but that might be personal taste.

Any Benchmarks with Photoshop?

One of the most problematic things on finding reviews, especially if you are like me, working 90% in Photoshop, is, that the one program everyone uses - is not in there. I don't care if Lightroom just crashes it, when importing 100.000 files, I want Photoshop to be 100% faster with a 5000px brush. Period.

There are a few PugetBench tests, but those numbers mean nothing.
I found that there is more that can't be tested such as snappiness when it comes to painting with custom brushes and also the startup of the program. 

And since we are at it, the snappiness of an M1 machine is hard to beat, that was the case on the M1 Mac Mini as well, but the M1 Ultra is just in its own league. Regardless of file size, layers or amount of files open in Photoshop, the snappiness of working with brushes is amazing and it shows to have 8 times the power of a small Mac Mini ;)

Starting Photoshop just takes 3 seconds, given the fact that I have around 500 MB of brush files, around 100 Lookup tables and 2 big Filter suites - SnapArt and Topaz Studio 2, as also a lot of Neural-Filters active, consider me impressed! 

On the iMac it took around 15 seconds and for a long time I thought that was fast. 

Now I have to add that on the M1, I need to use Photoshop under Rosetta because my creative work depends on some third party plugins such as MagicSquire and GuideGuide. The starting time and also the overall feel is very fast! It would be really great to have those plugin being native running under the M1, as far as speed goes, that would be insane!

How does it work with 3D?

I saw some promising video with the M1 Max Macbook pro of Adam Baroody using zBrush and the polygon count was amazing and so was the speed. Given the fact that the Ultra is just 2 times the max, there is plenty of power for that.

Also blender in version 3.1 has included support for apple's Metal-Engine, there is also a lot of discussion around and I'm sure if other programs start to support Metal, it can truly lead to remarkable changes in render times. In blender especially, render times in version 3.1 on a M1 Mac are up to 4 times faster.

After watching that video I thought giving the heaviest demo, "The Lone Monk" a try and it took 09:16s minutes rendering in the background(!) using GPU and CPU, compared to 24:46s the M1 Max took in the benchmark above which was the alpha version. 

I also use Keyshot because of the bundle I have bought back then with the zBrush-to-Keyshot bridge. It relies on CPU  but with 20 cores it is faster than with the M1 Max and 10 cores, even on that front it is a win, even if Keyshot is not optimized for Metal yet.

I tried Marmoset Toolbag and will observe how they deal with the transition of apple from Intel to M1, if it is their market, they might win a user, if not, I don't care.

How much RAM?

Actually you can never have enough RAM, and I regret that I did not get the 128 GB RAM version, but maybe it is good to have something left for another update in 5-6 years or so...

On the other hand, I watched some reviews on YT from Max Tech and even with all the Benchmarks and Tabs open and programs running, they did not get the M1 Max Macbooks to run out of RAM, which makes me confident that 64 GB is for now the best choice.

And to date, I could not get the RAM to bother.

Other than that, with the Ultra, you can't go lower than 64 GB, if you are thinking about the M1 Max, I'd suggest investing in getting 64 GB. In Photoshop it makes a huge difference. 

I used 32 GB on the iMac and in the past 2 years I always felt that it was too less.

If you are unsure or can't imagine this being enough, this might help you to decide:

Mac Studio or waiting for a larger iMac (Pro)?

My opinion about apple forcing iMac users to go with the Mac Studio instead of offering a new big iMac?

I don't care really. The Mac Studio is all I needed. I embrace the freedom of picking the display size I want or need. Of course the iMac 5k displays are in a league of their own, but then again they are all LG-Displays and to be honest I only need a 4k-display to store many open windows at any given time, not for color accuracy or anything else. That's why I went for the LG 32UN880-B.

It comes with  an ergo stand and offers so much flexibility, that is hard to beat for around 630 €.

I also don't want to do a bet on the question if apple will come up with a new iMac or if the Mac Studio just replaces the big AIO computer from Cupertino. Mostly because apple is always good for some surprises. But honestly, I actually considered getting an iMac Pro 2 years ago and calculated putting 7.5 to 8k for a powerhouse like that aside and then the Mac Studio came around, a lot cheaper and I can pick a 32" screen, what else could I ask for?

The Mac Studio Noise-Issue

When it comes to the noise-issue, I can just say that I hear a bit of the fan if I go close to the Mac with my ear, (as close as 5 cm) but even then, my external hard drive next to it, is louder.

As for the whistling sound, that many users complained about; If I get close to the back, there is a bit of a hi-frequency sound, but it is so quiet and within the actual fan sound, I don't hear it - or rather said, I don't find it annoying since it is not louder than the fan noise which is not hearable 50 cm away from the computer.

I really can't understand the trouble some people make of it. There is a powerhouse right in front of you and I would trade the meditative silent but steady fan every time over an iMac fan that starts to run faster and many times louder when I press on a "render" button.

But to be fair, the rumors about the noise made me change my plans into giving the new Mac a place under my desk.

M1 Ultra or M1 Max, any recommendations?

I use a lot of background rendering and 3D-tasks as also Photoshop and around 46 other programs that run in any current session. I want to be able to just work and not having to wait for one task to finish before I can get to the next one. With the iMac that was the case when Keyshot was rendering. Even in background mode, Photoshop and sometimes even the browser was sluggish and the fans ran like hell.

It was a brake for inspiration and motivation all at once.

The M1 Ultra can just deliver steady power without using much power (pun intended) and I need it to do just that. 

Again some blender action to give this argument more power; the BMW scene in blender took around 00:36 Seconds to render on the M1 Ultra opposed to 23 seconds an NVIDI RTX 3090 takes and that is most likely due to software optimization. Just for comparison, the NVIDIA Titan RTX took 40 Seconds for that rendering and does cost twice as much as the RTX 3090. The Titan RTX cost as much as the M1 Ultra Mac Studio! Just breathe in and out and give this a thought.

And if you are breathing out as an RTX user, just keep in mind, that the Mac Studio does this 36 second-thing while consuming around 50 Watts of power while any NVIDIA card takes up at least 5 times of that. Not that it matters much, but here in Germany power consumption is one of the most expensive things - for actually no reason.

If there is some unused potential the machine offers right now, it will be filled up with more complex tasks and even heavier programs in the future. The iMac with 4 GHz was a beast back then and was up to anything I threw at it, but then came the 3D-Programs and my workflow changed and I reached my limits.

If I can postpone reaching that limit for around 5-6 years, I'm quite happy.

That said, I can't recommend the M1 Max over the M1 Ultra or vice versa, because it depends on the needs and I believe there are enough reviews with benchmarks that gives a good overview of the capabilities to make an informed decision.

However, if you only use Photoshop and a bit video editing and no 3D at all and if you can live with a few seconds slower at whatever operation, I would still recommend getting the 64 GB RAM, because there is never enough RAM ;)

That is the only ultimate truth I can forward at this point.

What is your opinion, are you considering the Mac Studio as an option to enhance your workflow?

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Oliver aka Fantasio is a creative blogger who likes to share his insights about art, marketing and social media. Follow Fantasio on twitter or facebook


  1. Do you still recommend the xp pen over wacom?

  2. Thanks for the comment @Sasha!
    Yes, I'd recommend Xp-Pen, I'm still very happy with the 24" Pro and the artist 22" is still in use occasionally, works like a charm.

  3. Thanks so much! I ended up getting the Artist 24 (non pro version) and the 22 2nd gen to see which I liked better. I really noticed that the 22 was only hd with such a large screen. I really love the 24 but I may need to return for a replacement, the sensitivity isn't as good as the 22 and that seems wrong. Other than that, I love it lol



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